Interfaith Charities of South Lee, the Estero and San Carlos Park United Way House, played many roles in the area since its inception 30 years ago.
Starting out as a conceptual hub to meet community needs, Interfaith soon offered services including transportation to doctor’s visits, rental assistance, tutoring, budgeting, Medicaid and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program registration assistance, mental health services and a summer feeding site and arts and crafts classes for children.
As the nonprofit saw its community change, it adapted with those it serves, primarily focusing on low-income, blue-collar families.
“Most of our families that we deal with are not the chronically poor,” said Interfaith Director Nancy Martin. “We do have those, but these are the people that are right on that border line. When people fall in from low income into under what the poverty guidelines are, it is very difficult for them to get out. If you are above that poverty line, you can inch your way up into a better situation, but we don’t want them to fall down there.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the community’s need for food far exceeded access to Interfaith’s other services, resulting in the loss of services because of pandemic guidelines and the expansion of Interfaith’s pantry.
The pantry, which began operating as a drive-thru during the pandemic, completely took over the entirety of the Interfaith site, including the classrooms that its services were offered at.
Now, with the destruction Hurricane Ian left in its path, those who were already struggling are left to figure out how to keep themselves afloat with resources that were already limited pre-storm and post-pandemic.
Martin said many communities in Interfaith’s service area were flooded by multiple feet of storm surge, resulting in the loss of property and damage to homes.
“I have a couple of volunteers who live in these areas and they’re still coming in and volunteering,” she said. “It gives them a piece of normal that they don’t have right now.”
Interfaith began to give food out to those seeking assistance two days after Ian made landfall, with its official reopen day the Monday following the storm. As soon as doors were open, it was all hands-on deck.
Volunteer Raymond Lopez is one of many volunteers at Interfaith who experienced loss and devastation because of the hurricane.
“I looked at my house, the roof was gone, the front part was blown away and everything from my living room and bedroom was gone,” Lopez said. Despite the loss of his personal property, Lopez sums up the hurricane as simply a bad experience.
His wife, Rafaela, who just battled through cancer, was back volunteering as soon as doors opened.
“We’re here to help everybody else,” Lopez said. “Everybody needs help. My house was damaged, but there’s people that had it worse. I want the community to know that we’re here and they can come and get food and get assistance.”
Interfaith works in conjunction with an alliance of organizations to meet the needs of its community, such as Harry Chapin, Love Inc., St. Vincent de Paul CARES, the Literacy Council and many more.
Interfaith recently applied for a grant through United Way to better meet the needs of the community during this time and the future.
“We’re a United Way house that has no United Way house anymore so we have nowhere for these programs,” Martin said. “So, we applied for the money and we got it.”
With the grant, Martin is hoping to rent a storefront very close to Interfaith’s site to bring back all the United Way programs they previously offered, circling back to Interfaith’s roots of being a community hub of services.
“We could bring them back into the community and become more of a community hub rather than just ‘We’re the food pantry,’” Martin said. “This community needs more than that.”
In addition to the need of returning former programs, Martin stressed that time in the area of natural disasters does not always heal.
“What we really need is for this to still be on people’s priority list six months from now,” Martin said. “We need for them to remember that these areas have not recovered yet. Six months down the road these people will still need help. Keep finding ways to plug into the community and support that. We’ve been through this before, and we know that the interest drops off but the need does not.”